Choosing an Open-Source Content Management System

A Content Management System (CMS) provides a straightforward way to maintain a web site, allowing site owners to include interactive features such as article publishing, file uploads and sharing, forums and blogs with a minimum of coding. And a good CMS will also allow extensive customization to the site’s layout and appearance, so it doesn’t end up looking like thousands of other sites built on top of the same code base. Keep reading to find out how you can get a good one without spending a fortune.

Commercial CMSes such as Immediacy – used by the BBC – and Ingeniux can cost many thousands of dollars, but it isn’t necessary to spend anything to bring the advantages of a CMS to a web site. An open-source CMS can offer similar site maintenance capabilities at a fraction of the cost.

The main difficulty is in selecting a system that will meet the site’s specific requirements, as the choice is extensive and each has its own strengths and features. To give an idea of the sheer scale of the available choice, the CMS comparison site CMS Matrix lists almost 200 CMS projects that have been released under the terms of the GNU GPL.

A second major consideration when choosing a system is the technology on which it is built, including any third-party technologies on which it depends. These will have implications for the management, maintenance and support of the CMS itself, as well as the hardware and software environments within which it will run.

In this article I will outline the various factors to be considered when selecting a system, and compare a selection of different solutions in order to provide the information necessary to select a CMS that will meet your needs.

{mospagebreak title=How to choose?}

Before discussing the merits of various specific systems, it’s important to understand the various factors on which the choice of a CMS should be based. Some of these factors are technological while others are to do with business.


The first consideration is the purpose which the CMS will be required to serve. This involves answering questions such as:

  • Will the CMS be required to serve an Intranet, the Internet, or both?
  • Will it replace an existing publishing system? This will have implications for the migration of existing data to the new system, and compatibility with pre-existing requirements.
  • What type of material will be published? This could include things like simple text pages, complex pages containing graphics and with particular layout requirements, dynamically generated content, and so forth.
  • What volume of data will the CMS be required to handle?

When choosing the CMS, the information gained from this assessment can be matched against the capabilities and strengths of the various systems to ensure the winner will meet the requirements.


Once the basic purpose has been determined, it is a good idea to prioritize the features that will be most valuable in the selected CMS. Make a list of required features and arrange them in order of greatest to least importance. The feature list will probably include things like:

  • Multi-author support: Does your system need to support and manage multiple authors by, for example, protecting documents from unauthorized change and allowing multiple ownership?

  • "Out of the box" capabilities: How necessary is it that the CMS does most or all of what you need without having to source or build additional modules?

  • Authoring tools: If your content is the heart of your CMS, then your authors are its heartbeat. It’s worth ensuring that the CMS provides suitable tools that your authors will enjoy working with.

  • Metadata management: The CMS should provide adequate metadata management tools to ensure that your site meets your needs for searchability, multi-platform distribution, content re-usability, linking, and so forth.

  • Add-on modules: You may wish to add functionality to your site at a later date. The availability of appropriate modules will be critical to your ability to expand.

  • Ease of use: The maintenance and operation of the CMS must be within the technical capabilities of its users and support staff. There’s no point in implementing a highly technical solution without having the knowledge required to work with it or keep it running.

  • Template structure and flexibility: The system’s templates are the key to modifying the site’s look and feel. Depending on your requirements in this area, you may want to pay particular attention to the templates, to ensure they allow you to make alterations easily and quickly and without too steep a learning curve.


A major consideration when choosing a CMS is the technology on which it is built and the third-party technologies on which it depends. This decision will have implications for the management, maintenance and support of the CMS itself, as well as the hardware and software environments within which it will run.

Open-source content management systems are typically built on one or more of PHP, Java, Perl or XML, with by far the majority being PHP-based and a small minority using other technologies such as Perl and Python. Therefore the choice will be widest if PHP systems are considered, but the presence of infrastructure – whether hardware, software or human – that can better support one of the alternatives may be a significant factor in the final decision.


Depending on the size and nature of the organization, various business aspects may need to be considered such as cost, training requirements, guarantees, support and maintenance arrangements, scalability and technical constraints.

{mospagebreak title=Which system?}

Once you’ve considered the requirements of your CMS and drawn up a short list of required features, it’s time to get down to the business of assessing various systems for their suitability. Given the large number of available options, this can be a long and time-consuming task, therefore it’s worth considering using a tool such as the CMS Matrix, which allows you to compare the features of different systems side by side.

This approach can be valuable, but with so many systems listed, you still need a place to start. To help with this, we’ve assessed the features, strengths and weaknesses of five of the most popular and widely-used open source CMS solutions.


Joomla is a PHP-based GPL-licensed CMS with powerful features, designed for ease of use. It is primarily aimed at the small business market, but provides professional capabilities and is easily extensible.

  • Key features: Large range of built-in applications; comprehensive management tools; WYSIWYG content editing tools; free add-on modules for commerce, multi-language support and multi-site deployment.
  • Strengths: Easy to use, extend and customize; strong community support; excellent documentation; simple requirements (PHP, MySQL, Apache).
  • Weaknesses: Some security limitations; content categorization model can be restrictive; somewhat confusing structure.

Official site:


Despite its relative youth, the innovative, PHP-based Exponent CMS aspires to the level of a serious heavy-duty CMS. Its straightforward interface belies the powerful administration, security and content-creation tools that hide below the surface.

  • Key features: WYSIWYG content editing tools, comprehensive permissions and user-rights systems; workflow management; peer review and approval.
  • Strengths: Excellent interface; powerful security management tools; extensibility and theme tools; streamlined architecture and elegant code.
  • Weaknesses: Shortage of built-in applications; no commerce capabilities; limited functionality of some modules.

Official site:


Yet another PHP-based solution, Drupal has a strong following and is widely supported by site building companies due to its ease of implementation and maintenance. Highly recommended.

  • Key features: Straightforward web-based installer; support for standard web page development through a web interface; workflow and review tools; strong RSS support; built-in forum and commenting tools.
  • Strengths: Reliability; support network; quality of code; ease of customization; automatic updates.
  • Weaknesses: Limited documentation; limited out-of-the-box functionality – many modules are only available as add-ons; poor quality of built-in themes; steep learning curve for customization.

Official site:

{mospagebreak title=More Systems}


Mambo is an award-winning CMS that is ideal for the smaller, less structurally complex site. It is well-established with strong support, and is straightforward to set up and maintain out of the box.

  • Key features: WYSIWYG editing; independent administration interface; layout modification without editing code; menu customization; out-of-the-box PDF printing support.
  • Strengths: Proven robustness; extensive support network; customizability; simplicity of installation through 4-step wizard; good documentation.
  • Weaknesses: Limited security options; lack of workflow tools and version control; cluttered administration interface; inelegance of underlying code makes hacking difficult.

Official site:


The only one of our recommendations not to be based on PHP, the Python-built Plone CMS is an industrial-strength solution with user-friendly features, excellent scalability and the power of the underlying Zope CMS development platform on which it depends.

  • Key features: Powerful editing tools; full-featured management interface; member development areas; excellent workflow utilities; customizable document "archetypes."
  • Strengths: Accessibility and customizability of templates; scalability; large number of add-on modules; elegant, object-oriented underlying code, simplifying modification; fully featured out-of-the-box; strong support through the Plone Collective
  • Weaknesses: Requires strong knowledge of Python and Zope to get the most from it; steep learning curve due to complex structure.

Official site:


Ultimately the selection of a suitable CMS will depend on the specific requirements of the organization deploying it and the site it will host. By following a careful process of need assessment and feature comparison, it is possible to identify the system that will best meet those requirements.

Although this may seem like an unnecessarily long-winded process, it’s worth bearing in mind the cost and upheaval involved in getting it wrong. The implementation of a CMS is not a trivial business, especially if the goal is to migrate an existing site with all its content into the new system. It is therefore well worth taking the time and trouble to get it right the first time.

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